Reform of government - the role of the Office of the Ombudsman

On 2 February 2011 the Ombudsman sent a paper to all political parties and Oireachtas members entitled “Developing and Optimising the Role of the Ombudsman”. This explained how she believes that the Ombudsman could play a fuller role in supporting the checks and balances required for good government. The Ombudsman detailed four specific proposals, which would allow the Office to maximise its contribution to Government reform and rebalance the relationship between the Ombudsman and the Government so as to further increase public confidence in the effective working of the Institution of the Ombudsman.

The proposals are:

  • Constitutional status for the Office of the Ombudsman,
  • An improved reporting relationship with the Oireachtas,
  • Extension of the Ombudsman remit to include the prisons and all issues relating to immigration, refugees, asylum seekers and naturalisation, and
  • More transparent procedures for Ombudsman appointment.

 

Most of the changes the Ombudsman has put forward for consideration will need new legislation, and little or no additional expenditure. In fact the changes proposed are likely to result in savings in other areas.
 
The Programme for a National Government, published in March 2011, took into account some of the suggestions in my document. Of particular note were the comments about extending the remit of the Ombudsman to all publicly funded bodies and the establishment of a new Oireachtas Committee - the Investigations, Oversight and Petitions Committee.

The Ombudsman has already made some suggestions to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform relating to the practicalities of implementing the proposals to broaden her Office’s remit. She is hopeful that early progress can be made in delivering on this commitment which she sees as an essential component of the public service reform programme.

Reform starts at home - root and branch overhaul of complaint handling procedures

During 2010, the Office of the Ombudsman underwent a significant structural and process transformation - perhaps the most radical change management project since the Office was established in 1984.

The Office’s Strategic Plan 2010-2012 identified improved and speedier complaint handling as central to the future success of the Office. It was drafted against the backdrop of Exchequer resource constraints, the requirements of the Public Service Agreement 2010-2014, the significant increase in the number of complaints to the Office and the proposed extension of the Ombudsman’s remit.

One of the key objectives of the Strategic Plan is to ensure that the Office’s structure, systems and processes properly support an organisation that is fit for purpose and delivers its services fairly, efficiently and effectively to its customers.

With this in mind, and with external assistance, the Office assessed its existing organisational structure and business processes and identified changes needed to ensure:

  • optimal organisational arrangements, including structures, reporting relationships and responsibilities and resource requirements,
  • optimal business processes,
  • optimal management arrangements, including work practice agility and responsiveness to complainants and other clients, and
  • optimal use of information technology to improve organisational and administrative efficiency.

 

This assessment got underway in October 2010 and the new structure and processes went “live” on 1 March, 2011.

Fundamentally, the new structure and process signify a move away from what, heretofore, were specialised complaint handling units dedicated to particular sectors (e.g. government departments, local authorities, social welfare and health etc.). In its place we have put a more fluid model where these divisions have been removed and the organisation simplified to optimise complaint throughput; to increase flexibility and to allow rapid deployment of staff resources to deal with rising demand in any particular unit.

The Office now comprises three process units, enquiries, assessment and examinations. These units deal with all types of complaints, regardless of the public body complained of, and each unit’s primary purpose is to resolve each enquiry or complaint as early in the process as possible. A fourth unit, the investigations unit, deals with the more complex complaints which cannot be resolved informally. It also handles systemic investigations which address alleged patterns of bad practice which may be common to groups of complaints, or indeed, a number of public bodies. It is anticipated that, over time, the new arrangements will reduce considerably the amount of time and resources allocated to each complaint and, in turn, deliver quicker and more responsive complaint outcomes to our clients.

In addition, and bearing in mind the need to effect improved efficiencies across the public sector as a whole, the Office has asked for the assistance of all public bodies under its remit in providing relevant files and information to the Office within shorter time frames. The assistance of public bodies to date in this respect has been most welcome.

The Ombudsman wholeheartedly commended her management team and staff for the “can-do” approach they adopted to designing and implementing the revised structure and processes in such a short space of time. They displayed great willingness to embrace very significant change and to work to bring about further improvements in the service the Office delivers to its clients.